Triathletes: A special breed of swimmer

As the cold winter months recede behind us, many folks are now in full training for upcoming athletic challenges. Whilst some are content to stick to just one discipline others prefer to spread their wings into the world of the triathlete. My own ventures are somewhat modest but, when I have tried triathlons I have discovered, to my delight, that I perform as if I am a mixture of Sir Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy and Adam Peaty. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I swim like Sir Mo, run like Adam Peaty and had all the grace and speed on a bike of Sir Chris. On a unicycle. My mediocrity it seems knows no bounds.

Photo by Tony Pham on Unsplash

Obviously, though, many compete at a far higher level than me and have mastered all three disciplines. But not always. It is not unusual for a strong runner and cyclist to be a relatively poor swimmer. Often they are looking for a “quick fix” to their problems. These athletes are sometimes some of the trickiest of the clients seen by SwimMastery coaches. 

It needn’t be so. Here are eight “P”s to bear in mind before a race

Pick the event carefully

 Perhaps the most important one but sometimes overlooked. Plan ahead and make a schedule. A realistic one. Don’t be too ambitious with the length of the race. Analyse your current ability with brutal honesty and find out how long it is likely to take to improve on weaknesses BEFORE you book your place.

 It’s not uncommon for a SwimMastery coach to have this sort of conversation with a new client:

Client. “I need you to help me learn how to swim better. I’ve got a triathlon coming up but I get out of breath if I swim 25 metres”.

SM Coach. “OK, when is your event?”

Client. ”It’s in three weeks”

SM Coach. “ “

Oh, if SM coaches had a penny for every time they’ve had a conversation like that, they’d have…erm….well not a great deal I suppose. About 37p on average, I expect. Nevertheless, that still represents an awful lot of delusional triathletes. 

So don’t get carried away. Give yourself plenty of time to master new skills. Don’t leave it until the last minute and expect everything to magically fall into place.

Practice

 Practice is obviously vital if you are going to master new skills. But it must be the right kind of practice. Not too little to enable you to make a difference but neither should I be too much so that it overloads the brain and body and you don’t get a chance to assimilate the new information. Listen to your coach and don’t be tempted to step outside their advice. Which leads us to….

 Patience and perseverance.

Success may not come overnight. 

Certainly, it won’t obligingly be driven by your event deadline. So be patient. As long as you are following a logical progression then the mastery of new skills is just a matter of time. How much time though will vary by the individual. So follow your own pathway to whatever goal you have set yourself and don’t be swayed by the speed at which you feel you should be travelling or the speed at which others may be travelling.

 Place. 

Where you practice is just as important as how you practice. If your event is taking place in open water then it is only sensible to ensure that as much of your practice as possible takes place in that environment. If you’ve only ever swum in your local pool then jumping into a cold lake is going to come as a bit of a shock! As part of this, you will also need to think about elements such as the goggles you will wear and whether you will use a wet suit or not.  

Partner 

Some folk will find that training with someone else provides invaluable motivation, encouragement and support. Others may prefer the lone wolf approach. If you are part of the former group then choose a partner carefully. Someone of approximately the same ability is probably advisable. 

Someone who exudes good vibes is vital. 

If your partner is discouraging or disinterested in you don’t be afraid to ditch them

Prepare

Knowing factors like the amount and type of nutrition you will require during the event is knowledge that can be acquired in the preceding months by trial and error. In addition, swimming in a wetsuit (if you don’t plan to wear one) or without one (if you do) is also prudent in case the rules about wearing them change suddenly in the hours before the start.

However, some elements of an event are virtually impossible to replicate in training. In particular the feeling of being surrounded by a large number of others swimmers. 

Photo by Ashley de Lotz on Unsplash

For those unused to it, it can feel claustrophobic and even intimidating. There is little chivalry being observed at a mass start and it is not uncommon to be battered and bruised by faster swimmers who will simply swim over you if you are in the way. Likewise, the water will probably be churned up more than you are used to in training, if not by the number of extra bodies then maybe by the weather conditions. It is advisable to at least be aware of how the event may unfold and how you may react to changed circumstances. Talk to other competitors who have been through it already and, where possible, glean coping strategies.  

Pace

Part of your pre-race plan should concern pacing. At the start of the race, you are likely to be a little keyed up and excited. However, you will also be at your freshest with the greatest reserves of energy available to you. But it is important not to get carried away and burn all of your fuel reserves too early. 

Remember, it is very difficult to win the race during the swim element of a triathlon but it’s very easy to lose it. 

Make sure that the majority of your energy has been left for the longer cycling and running elements of the triathlon

Positivity

Finally, make sure that you approach the event with a positive mindset. 

Rely on your training. If you have prepared properly and planned carefully your success is assured! Good luck.

Taking responsibility for safety

In recent weeks I have been watching the Six Nations on TV. For the uninitiated, that’s a rugby union tournament. And for anyone still none the wiser, rugby is basically 80 minutes of legalised high-speed car crashes. Without the cars. It’s an exciting but often brutal contact sport played by huge, muscular but highly athletic players. Tackles are fearsome and frequent.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Kelly Brown who was then the Scottish captain. Six foot seven of repressed power. Awesome on the field, surprisingly mild-mannered off it. The previous day he had been taken from the field after a tackle from the English player Matt Bannerman (whom he described as an animal which probably given the size of Mr Brown, gives you some idea of how big and fast Bannerman was!). Brown was telling me how he was forced off for an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) so that the doctors could judge whether he was suffering from concussion. He had been convinced he was fine and apparently was quite vocal about the point on the pitch. Unfortunately, he said, one of the effects of concussion is an increase in aggressive behaviour so, the more he insisted he was fine, the more the doctors insisted that he wasn’t. So off he went. In the end, he got the all-clear and returned to complete the match.

HIA’s are now part and parcel of the modern rugby game and have been introduced as a compulsory safety measure solely for the protection of the players. The decision to make an HIA is always made by an independent medical professional.

All very interesting and important, but how, I hear you ask, does this relate to swimming?

Swimming isn’t a contact sport. Head injuries are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, many swimmers damage their bodies through the sport. Maybe not in a one-off incident such as the tackle on Kelly Brown, but more likely through persistently and consistently moving the body in a way in which it was not designed to do. Over time, this may range from an annoying little niggle to something far more serious, and debilitating.

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

What then, is done to protect the swimmer and keep them safe? Safety in rugby isn’t limited just to HIA’s. If, for example, a player lifts an opponent off the ground during a tackle, it is their responsibility to return them to the soil safely rather than simply dropping them or falling on them. Failure to do so can result in the tackler being sent off. Safety is enshrined in the rules of the game.

Is the same true for freestyle swimming? Do regulations exist to keep swimmers safe? (And by “safe” I don’t mean safe from drowning but safe from developing injuries).

The simple answer seems to be “no”.

In all fairness I guess there’s a clue in the name, however, freestyle rules seem to be fairly thin on the ground. It seems that more or less anything goes. Rules are defined by the Federation Internationale De Natation and the basic overview is somewhat sparse. Freestyle is simply defined as any stroke other than backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke and it says that swimmers must touch the wall at the end of the pool when turning and that their head must break the surface no more than15m after a turn but that’s about it. A little more delving finds that swimmers must start the race in a forward direction (!) and can’t use the lane ropes to propel themselves forward nor can they push off from the bottom of the pool. Bizarrely it appears completely legal in a race to stop and stand up for a little rest (providing one stays still and doesn’t begin to walk down the lane).

But you’ll notice there is nothing in there to prevent the swimmer from employing a swimming method that might actually end up harming them. That responsibility is left entirely up to the individual.

Which is a worry, because most people have very little idea which movements are likely to be harmful and which aren’t. Habits are often instilled at an early age when they are first taught to swim and not everyone takes the opportunity to review them later. The problem here is that children are often first encouraged to swim by their parents (or forced to do it as part of a school swimming lesson). And a significant proportion of parents have no more idea about how to ensure the body is moving safely than their pupils. They will judge themselves as a success if they get their little ones t from point A to point B without sinking to the bottom of the pool. Less attention is paid to exactly how this is done with the assumption being made that the finer details will work themselves out over time. There’s no guarantee or reason why this should be so.

School teachers may have a better idea of the rights and wrongs but realistically they can be faced with an entire class of snotty spotty adolescents to motivate and keep in order. Individual care and assessment may well not be a practical option.

All this means is that the role of the swim coach becomes crucial; they must be knowledgeable about the potential dangers of injury and the ways these can be avoided. And that they can communicate this in an easy to understand format. And this can mean they require the ability to be flexible in their teaching approach and strong-willed enough to stay on a particular aspect of the stroke, perhaps approaching the mastery of that skill from multiple directions, before moving on. Proficiency in the basics of the stroke is crucial to long-term success and swimmer safety. Speed and endurance training may have to wait until the fundamentals of the stroke are mastered and that may require not only patience from the swimmer but also expertise on behalf of the coach.

For some sports, such as rugby, the responsibility for safety becomes part and parcel of the game; if the players abide by the rules then they are going a long way to avoiding injury. For many non-contact sports though those taking part must be aware that, to a large part, they are responsible for themselves. They need to do all they can to ensure that they have been taught with the most appropriate techniques available.

Summoning The Genie of Fluidity

It’s funny how you collect random bits of information through your life and remember them despite being of no relevance at all isn’t it? Back in the seventies, they used to print quotes and jokes on the back of matchboxes. Although I have never had any interest in golf really, one I recall was along the lines that, it wasn’t the hundreds of bad shots that you hit which were so frustrating but the one where everything went right.

A similar sentiment was expressed by John Cleese in the film Clockwise after yet another setback in his attempt to get to his destination on time.  He said, “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”.

Those who swim regularly will have sympathy with these sentiments. For many, the stroke can be a bit of a struggle. Regardless of our level of experience, or what our focus for the session is, we are acutely aware that, overall, things could be going better. Even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, something is amiss; something needs to be improved.
And then, like an unexpected ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, everything just “clicks”. We become aware that suddenly it feels like we’re flying through the water with barely any effort at all; the timing is right, the breathing is natural, the catch, the press, the rotation – it’s all just perfect. Finally, we seem to have cracked this swimming lark. This is how it’s supposed to be and this is clearly how it’s going to be from now on.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it all falls apart again. Swimming isn’t a disaster; you know you are still a fine and competent sportsperson. But that Nirvana had disappeared, perhaps never to return. You try. Of course, you try, but it’s like trying to recapture a particularly pleasant dream from which you’ve just awoken. It can’t be done. The ephemeral Genie of Fluidity has simply melted away.

And the worst bit of all is that now we know he exists. The sensation was real. Surely it must be possible to recapture it? Yet, try as we do, we may as well go out onto the moorland at daybreak and capture the mist in a butterfly net. What is quickly apparent is that this Genie cannot be easily tamed. His presence is not ours to demand or command. His image appears in the periphery of our vision. Look at him directly and he has gone. Determined, dogged concentration rarely proves to be successful. It may improve one particular aspect of our stroke but can’t quite recreate that feeling of effortless flow.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Yet herein would seem to lie a contradiction. SwimMastery pupils are constantly advised to use specific cues to improve their technique. Why then doesn’t this lead automatically to that state of complete ease of movement?

I believe that the answer may lie back in the golfing world. On the website Kidadl.com we are told “Golf..is more of a mind game than a physical game…Many people fail to win at golf and the reason is mainly about their mind being agitated with…thoughts. That wonderful author Douglas Adams in one of the later books in his Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy series had a similar take on events and expressed them even more eloquently. His hero, Arthur Dent is taught the power of unaided human flight. He is told “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”.

In other words, if you concentrate too hard on achieving the seemingly impossible, it will remain just that; impossible. What needs to be done is, not to target the appearance of the Genie directly, but to focus our attention on creating the circumstances in which he can appear.

This is not a simple or speedy process. It requires almost perfect muscle memory of the movements and sensations of all parts of the stroke. And the ability to rely on them functioning to the highest standard at all times. For this reason alone many hours, perhaps years, of practice and training are required before the Genie can be relied upon to grace us with his presence.

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

There is, perhaps, one other factor at play here as well which is implicit in the very first quote I used; that of expectation. If you believe that every stroke you take, whether in golf or in swimming is likely to be slightly awry, then the chances are, that it will be. But in the words of Winston Churchill “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

When it comes to trying to achieve that wonderful but elusive sensation of perfection, the Hope may be almost unbearable but don’t let the Despair drag you down!

Meanwhile, I guess we just need to keep on hurling ourselves at the ground.

Coach Profile – Claire Sutton, Swimfinity

As the community of SwimMastery coaches continues to expand rapidly we thought it would be a good idea to profile some of the coaches in more depth, exploring their background, philosophy and inspirations. First up we spoke to Claire Sutton who runs her business, Swimfinity, from an idyllic village less than half an hour from Leeds and around seven miles from Selby in West Yorkshire.

Claire kindly took time out to talk to us from her preparations for her forthcoming freestyle workshop at The Forum Centre in Leeds on October 31st which she will be running jointly with SwimMastery co-founder Tracey Baumann

“When did you start coaching?” 

I began in 2018 when I decided that I needed a career change. I had re-discovered my love for swimming a few years earlier and it seemed to be a very logical step to take this to the next level

“Do you remember learning to swim?” 

I remember winning a gold medal at Butlins holiday camp aged 6, up against all 6-9 year-olds in an outdoor unheated pool. My only memory of actually learning to swim is of holding the side, refusing to move! I do remember following a pole that the teacher was holding to get my 10m badge.

“What were your early experiences like?” 

Learning to swim was an adventure and swimming for the City of Leeds was really cool. Travelling to Ireland, Germany and all over the UK to swim was totally inspiring. We swam in Stuttgart and Dublin, both times staying with exchange families. Those memories are still very vivid 40 years on!

“What gives you the most satisfaction when coaching?” 

I love video analysis, 30minute lessons showing the progress people make is really motivating. Taking a splashy, panicky front crawl swimmer to a calm relaxed smooth swimmer is the favourite part for me.

“What are the most challenging aspects of coaching?” 

Access to open water is hard where I live, there is loads around Yorkshire but getting to coach in those venues can be tricky. Fortunately, I have a number of locations I can use including the River Wharfe near Boston Spa, Leeds Docks and the east coast sea.

“How has your coaching style changed over the years?” 

I’ve been in teaching for over 20 years and always knew I wanted to teach from being as young as 7. Coaching is so much more effective and giving the swimmer, child or adult, the tools to take away and improve by themselves is the biggest change.

“Where is the best place you have ever swum?” 

I guess the English Channel was cool but not the cleanest water so maybe the Caribbean for the fact that the water was so clear.

“Where would you like to swim that you have yet to visit?” 

Iceland is a must for me, where the tectonic plates meet and you can swim over them. It’s on my bucket list to do before I’m 50!

“Who do you most admire in the swimming world and why?” 

You know, my daughter was asked this question about which footballer she admired most and she said, she thinks a lot of people inspire her but she wouldn’t want to be like them. I think this is the same for me; Olympians, World Record holders, ocean swimmers, all are inspiring but actually ultimately I swim for me and my health and wellbeing, not to be like anyone or to copy anyone.

“How do you feel when you swim?” 

Now that depends on the water, temperature, location and company but I can say, a swim never makes me feel bad!

“Who gave you the best advice/information about swimming and what was it?” 

That has to be my swim buddy Andrea Hall. Recently we’ve decided to swim for peace, not pace and for this reason, every swim is relaxing, not pressured and in our own time.

“What do you aim to provide for your students?” 

Whatever their goal is! That could be a Channel swim, a 5m swim or just putting their face in the water. Every student is different. That’s what makes the job so interesting.

“Why did you choose to use the SwimMastery method of teaching and coaching?” 

That’s easy, Tracey Baumann and Mat Hudson were both respected coaches in the world of swimming already. Tracey trained me originally so to follow her and Mat and be able to learn more from them is crucial for both my development in swimming and for my students to know that I personally have the best coaches working with me.

“What are your ambitions for the future both as a swimmer and also as a coach?”

A Channel solo has to be on my long term swimming list but in 2022 it’s Lake Windermere one way. As for coaching, I am planning on installing a cold water plunge pool at the studio soon. I also have the first SwimMastery workshop to deliver on 31st October. After that, I would like to start swim camps around the world, when the world opens up again! 

Thank you, Claire and good luck with the workshop!”

There are still a few places available on the workshop so, if you hurry, you may still be able to bag a place. Please contact Claire for details.

Swimfinity summary

Area covered: Yorkshire

Facilities at the studio: Endless Pool, private change area, refreshments, Video Analysis

Open water facilities nearby: Leeds Dock, East Coast Sea, River Wharfe, Boston Spa.

One to one or small group teaching available for: Kids, Adults, Nervous / novice swimmers, Triathletes  Channel swimmers, Cold water swimmers, Open water swimmers.

Other teaching: Workshops, Camps – soon hopefully!

Claire can be contacted at:

Website: http://swimfinity.net 

Facebook: [email protected]

 Email: [email protected]

 Phone/WhatsApp: 07947730830

Swimming – what really matters…

I was chatting recently to some of my fellow coaches and the subject of exactly why we swim came up. As the summer draws to a close and temperatures start to drift downwards I was curious to know what motivated them, particularly when it came to open water swimming. Was it the feeling of being at one with nature?; the calm meditative nature of the stroke?: the feeling of freedom and weightlessness from being supported by the water? I was predicting a range of answers along these lines.

In fact, the answer was unanimous and unequivocal. There was no debate with regard to the best bit about swimming:

It’s the cake.

Specifically ginger cake apparently.

Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash

Now I am aware that not all open water swimmers will agree with this, some might see it as quite a controversial view. Particularly those who favour a Battenburg. However, there can be little doubt that, whatever the exact type, there is very little that can beat a nice thick slice of cake after a swim. Preferably accompanied by a hot chocolate or at the very least a strongly brewed cup of tea.

But is any of this relevant? And if so, how? Are Swim Mastery swimmers not here to exercise, to practice and improve, to train and travel on the road to higher learning? Well, yes, clearly. That’s definitely part of it. A pretty large part of it. And indeed if you want to make that your sole experience then good luck to you.

However, there is a whole other side to things to consider. SwimMastery is all about making connections. Connections in the body when we’re in the water to ensure that we are moving as one coordinated unit. But connections are equally important out of the water. Social connections, bringing people together who have a shared love of the sport. People who would probably never meet any other way. 

Just in my own relatively small circle of swimming friends I have met government advisors and grannies, prison officers and stay at home Mums, acrobats and architects. Plus people I consider that I know quite well yet have absolutely no idea what they do for a living. Because swimming, like many sports, is a complete leveller. It doesn’t matter what folks do away from the water. All that matters is the enjoyment which is had within it. And success in business is no guarantee of success in the water (but no barrier to it either obviously). Normal hierarchies can be completely overturned. Not that it really matters; in my experience most swimmers focus on the challenges presented by the water and are less focused on the performance of their colleagues. Some competitve element may creep into affairs from time to time but rarely is this representative of serious rivalry.

I observed a coach the other day who was drilling a group of youngsters in the pool. I was horrified. If he felt they hadn’t swum a length well enough the whole lane had to get out and do press-ups or crawl on all fours back to the other end It was meant to be fun I’m sure but looked simply degrading and humiliating. None of the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. I had no idea why they didn’t push him in. Needless to say, he was not a SwimMastery coach. Perhaps he was having success in creating a few swimmers capable of winning a race in a school gala. However, I am certain that he was completely failing to nurture a life-long love of swimming in any of his pupils which would have been a preferable outcome by far and may well have been a more successful strategy in producing successful race swimmers to boot.

Photo by Angelo Pantazis on-Unsplash

Because if you aren’t enjoying your swimming, if everything becomes a grim-faced slog, then it’s unlikely that you will build those all-important bonds which unite both formal and informal groups. It’s probably no coincidence that the SwimMastery swim groups I see tend to have a lot of fun and laughter together. 

And cake.

Why learning from the best is not always a good idea.

One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others.  Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets.  With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible.  Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away.  It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game.  If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.

However, it is important to recognise the limitations too.  It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives.  The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite.  It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication.  Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak.  Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.

But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own.  There are, however, other factors to remember.  Swimming is a “whole body” sport.  Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result.  Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water.  Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns.  Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.

Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash

Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training.  Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race.  This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes.  If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change.  The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.

And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers.  A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic. 

There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level.  These are not normal people!  That is not intended in a derogatory way.  It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals.  In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone.  Some were much taller.  Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot.  For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone.  In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties.  However, an athletic build is often just the starting point.  To take Michael Phelps as an example.  It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick.  He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility.  He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height.  His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.  

Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.

In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming.  There is much to be learned from this approach.  However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming.  Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.

 

 

 

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